HOUSE (HAUSU) Blu-ray Review [Oh, Japan!]

Posted by Peter Hall - October 27th 2010 @ 7:54 pm

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977
Written by Chiho Katsura

Reputations are an interesting thing on their own, but they can be exceptionally curious when it comes to the horror genre.  If anything garners a reputation within our walls, it’s likely because it is either A) notoriously bad or B) notoriously shocking.  So once a fan catches wind of a reputation, it’s practically impossible to not hold the film up to the exaggerated fancies and standards that have heard about.  In the case of HAUSU, the reputation isn’t one of being bad or shocking, it’s just known as being a notoriously weird Japanese film.

Well, now that the Criterion Collection have released the film on Blu-ray and DVD in the US, I’ve finally had a chance (and an excuse) to see what the hubbub is all about.  Annnnd…….

Yeah.  It’s got a reputation for a reason: HAUSU is pretty damned bizarre.  However, I don’t think it’s the nonsensical oddity that many make it out to be.  It’s got a lot of interesting artistic merit and clear intent to it (after all, Criterion put their stamp of approval on it by delivering this pristine presentation of the movie), but, yes, it’s certainly one of the weirder, if not weirdest, Japanese genre exports around.

It’s not really a horror movie, though.  It’s certainly set up one: A gaggle of teen girls head off to vacation at the remote home owned by one of the gal’s distant aunts.  Tales of strange things happening to long dead relatives abound before floating heads start appearing and people start getting eaten by pianos.  But, aside from the framing and the fact that a good mess of people don’t survive the wrath of the house, it’s hard to call it a horror film when it’s got the script of a ’70s teen sex comedy, the look of a ’70s anti-smoking PSA and a score that is better suited for a Hallmark commercial than it is a haunted house movie.

It’s those conflicting elements that make HAUSU so interesting, though.  It’s not strictly a horror movie, but it is a fascinating bit of pop art.  Director Nobuhiko Obayashi came from a background making commercials and it shows in nearly every scene of the movie, almost all of which feel like miniature experiments in style and cutting edge camera techniques.  Sure, all of the floating head stuff make look more than a little chintzy by today’s standards, but for 1977 it was pretty out-there stuff for the Japanese film market.  And, thanks to Criterion, we can see how much of it was done behind-the-scenes via a few well-preserved making-of segments that were produced for the film’s original release.

But just because the film is an interesting experiment doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a successful one.  I love how each member of the girl squad is boiled down to their simplest of traits and is only ever referred to by their nickname (the popular one is Gorgeous, the nerdy one is Professor, the sporty one is Kung-Fu etc).  It fits perfectly with the movie’s increasingly funky, summer-of-love vibe, but the inverse of that is that the characters are all so simplistic that it’s hard to care what happens to any of them (save for Prof and Kung-Fu, who get enough great one-liners and physical gags to make you love them).  It’s also a lot harder to care about, well, anything when the movie is trying so aggressively to come across like an inspired acid trip.

It’s kind of hard to feel satisfied when, for example, we periodically follow the plight of a bumbling teacher striving to reach the girls (presumably so he can have sex with one of them) only to have him turned into a pile of bananas after talking to a fruit salesman/skeleton.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s both intentionally weird and hilarious, but that certainly doesn’t preclude it from ultimately coming across as a “What the hell did I just watch” kind of film.  If you’re in the mood for that kind of a watch (and if you’re not, I recommend plenty of alcohol to get you in the mood), then you’ll have a riot.  If you’re not, the insanity may drag on, grating your brain with sensory overload.  But even if that’s the case; even if you find no charm in HAUSU’s gonzo opulence, it’s impossible to forget ever having seen it.

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  1. October 30th, 2010 | 1:16 am | #1

    Your article really got me to check out this movie trailer, and yes it’s pretty wired and crazy. I gotta watch this movie this Halloween!

    I believe the floating head you are talking about is “yokai”. Here are some info about youkai:

    There are lots of these yoaki stories back in Japan, and those ideas are used in anime and movies.

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